February 22nd, 2012
03:00 PM ET

Lessons of the 40 years since Nixon went to China

Editor's note: Kenneth Lieberthal is senior fellow and director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council from August 1998 to October 2000. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book, "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."

By Kenneth Lieberthal - Special to CNN

Pretty much everything has changed in U.S.-China relations since Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communiqué 40 years ago on February 21, 1972.

Nixon's goals were purely geostrategic. By cultivating China, he sought most of all to put pressure on North Vietnam to come to terms to achieve his promised "peace with honor" there, hopefully before the November election. He also sought, through China, to pressure Moscow to embrace détente and thus put America in the catbird seat in relations with the two communist behemoths.

China had different priorities - most of all, Beijing wanted to stiffen President Nixon's spine to oppose Soviet aggression and therefore to reduce Moscow's threat to China.

In the 1980s, Beijing got its way with Ronald Reagan, who came into office as an anti-Soviet crusader. Indeed, President Reagan aligned U.S. strategic interests with China so closely that America began military sales to Beijing. But in 1989 everything changed. President George H.W. Bush, just inaugurated and planning to move U.S.-China relations to a new level, saw this goal cut short by the brutal suppression of demonstrators at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989. As China transitioned from being America's darling reforming communist country to being its poster child for communist repression, the Soviet Bloc (and soon afterward, the Soviet Union itself) unraveled.

Not only did the Soviet collapse rob U.S.-China relations of their underlying strategic rationale, post-Tiananmen repression in China introduced human rights as a major political factor in the relationship. Every American human rights organization expended much effort in the 1990s to attach China somehow to that agenda and thus increase its own visibility and emotional power.

This made it far more difficult to deal with Beijing, especially as the Chinese connected this human rights agenda directly to an American objective to bring down the Communist Party's rule. The result was deep mutual distrust.

Read on here.

Topics: China • Foreign Policy • United States

soundoff (8 Responses)

    Didn't we discussed that few Weeks ago? Or...?

    February 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  2. LessonLearned

    Don't ever trust a GOP president.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Nixon's visit 40 years ago brought about the rapprochement between the U.S. and China. It continues to develop today, in awkward fits and starts, and occasional wars of words. This tempestuous relationship will last for a long while, especially when the two compete for hegemonial power and neither one nor the other settles for being the second best. One shouldn't lose hope on a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran as well.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed this historic event should teach the U.S. and Iran a lesson that they shouldn't lose hope on a rapprochemet as well.

      February 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • George Patton

      Whatever his ulterior motives were, Nixon's 1972 trip to China was the best thing he ever did during his Presidency. Today, we need to make a similar move toward Iran but none of the current warmongering Republican candidates with the exception of Ron Paul wants any part of it. The very last thing this country needs is another useless and unnecessary war halfway around the world!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
      • Marine5484

        You said it all, George. Thank you.

        February 22, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
      • mrcyriac

        You're right George, but unfortunately, I think we will need to wait for a Republican President before any similar moves can be made with Iran. it's easier for a hawk to make peace and easier for a dove to make war – at least in terms of popular public perception and backlash.

        Any attempt by Obama to extend an Olive branch to Iran will be seen as appeasement and weakness.

        February 23, 2012 at 5:53 am |
  4. mrcyriac

    Sometimes I get the feeling that only a Republican/conservative President is capable of making these sort of olive branch moves. They are perceived to be so hawkish that when they play the role of the dove, people seem to trust them more. If Obama were to try a similar outreach, (s)he would almost immediately be labeled as weak.

    Conversely, when a dove acts like a hawk, people trust him/her more as well. It is easier for Obama to take aggressive actions (drone bombs in Pakistan, send more troops to Afghanistan, support the Libyan rebels) than a conservative, who would face more backlash from all the other doves.

    February 23, 2012 at 5:37 am |

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